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Bonsai 101 


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Bonsai 101 

Written By: Brookelynn Morris 


Sapling (1) 

Soil mix (1) 

Small rocks (1) 

Screen (1) 

Pottery (1) 

Small raked) 

Fine shears (1) 

Copper wire (1) 

Hemp twine (1) 

Water (1) 

Fertilizer: various types and strengths (1) 

Moss, pebbles, and other plants (optional) (1) 


Bonsai plants are, in their essence, little trees. Yet the art of bonsai has a much greater 
scope: it strives to replicate nature. It is an art that emulates the elements and their action 
on living plants. A tree is just a sapling until the roots grow, the water comes into the soil, 
and the forces of sun, wind, and gravity sculpt it into shape. The bonsai artist uses a variety 

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Bonsai 101 

of tools to replicate these effects and create a perfect miniature version of life on Earth. 

Watching your tiny tree as it cycles through the seasons, going dormant, pushing out leaf 
buds, blossoming, and then producing fruits or berries is very rewarding, and a wonderful 
way to connect with the natural world. 

The art of growing bonsai is well adapted to the urban gardener. These plantings require less 
water, less soil, and less square footage. But just because they're diminutive, doesn't mean 
that they don't need great amounts of care and tending. Regular waterings are the most 
essential. Tasks such as repotting and restyling are done when needed, as well as pruning, 
training, and shaping. These chores are not without reward. Because bonsai can recreate 
complete landscapes, the impression of grand natural space exudes from these small 

Aesthetics dominate the art of bonsai. Many stringent rules exist for the purists dedicated to 
this art. Ancient standards declare that certain trees are to be grown in certain shapes and 
planted into certain pots. But the modern, creative gardener follows her own path toward 
beauty. Just be sure to never lose sight of the visual appeal and design of your plantings. 

The more you learn about bonsai, the more you realize what you have yet to learn. To 
properly cultivate a design could take decades. From the beginning, art is made and life is 
growing, but the passage of time is the core of bonsai. Many experts in the field have been 
growing bonsai 50 years or more. This is a simple primer to help you establish your roots. 

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Bonsai 101 

Step 1 — Choose your tree. 

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Bonsai 101 

• Choosing the species of tree to 
grow is the first, and possibly most 
difficult, task. Pines and maples 
are perhaps the most recognizable 
bonsai. These trees are classic 
beauties and well suited for 
miniaturization. Flowering and 
fruiting trees are popular as well, 
especially the quince and 

• Bonsai trees are not necessarily 
always trees. Many shrubs can be 
grown and manipulated into bonsai 
forms that belie their natural state. 
Wisteria vines and azaleas can be 
shaped into thick tree trunks that 
they would never produce normally. 

• The tree can be grown from seed 
or propagated through a cutting. 
The easiest way to begin is to 
select a sapling from your favorite 

• Bonsai Styles: Bonsai are 
often classified into five 
basic styles — formal upright, 
informal upright, slanting, cascade, 
and semi-cascade — based on the 
overall shape and how much the 
trunk slants. You'll also find dozens 
of additional styles such as literati, 
windswept, and weeping branch, 
which you can mix and modify as 
you see fit. 

• A good introduction can be found at 
on Wikipedia or in Bonsai for 


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Bonsai 101 

Beginners by Craig Coussins 
(Sterling Publishing). 

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Bonsai 101 

Step 2 — Select a complementary container. 

• The chosen tree will dictate its 
container. The two must make a 
visually pleasing combination. 
Traditionally, the intended shape of 
the tree is matched to a specific 

• For instance, a straight-sided pot 
would be used for a straight- 
growing formal upright style tree, 
while a round or oval pot would be 
used for an informal style with a 
curving trunk or limbs. The same 
rules state that evergreens should 
be exclusively set into unglazed 

• While there is room for variance, in 
general you'll find that your eye will 
naturally follow some of these 
same rules of design out of 
instinct. When choosing a pot, 
consider the sides and consider the 
depth. If you're growing a tree that 
will cascade out of the pot like it's 
growing on the edge of a cliff, you'll 
want to choose a tall pot; a 
collective planting meant to look 
like a meadow needs a wide and 
shallow one. 

• Finally, select the hue of the 
pottery. Try to complement the 
color of the leaves most of all. 

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Bonsai 101 

Step 3 — Prepare the soil. 

• Dirt is a tree's lifeline. The soil 
clinging to the roots provides the 
tree with its moisture and nutrients. 
It is crucial to use a mix that will 
hold water, but not keep the roots 
too wet. The grain of the soil is also 
a consideration. When a tree's root 
encounters a large, sharp rock, the 
tip of the root splits in two and 
grows around it. The result is a 
finer, thinner root, unable to take up 
as much water as a large root, 
therefore contributing to natural 

• Plant your bonsai tree in soil with a 
combination of rich dirt and larger 
bits of rock to replicate this effect. 
You can purchase specialty soil, 
custom-tailored to suit the unique 
texture and drainage needs of 
bonsai, or you can customize your 
own soil with raw materials such as 
bark, coconut fiber, perlite, and 
rock chips. 

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Bonsai 101 

Step 4 — Plant the bonsai. 

• If the pot does not have drainage holes, use a drill with a ceramic bit to add a hole. To 
prevent soil loss, cover it with a piece of screen. 

• Before planting gently remove the tree from its container and inspect the roots. They will 
likely have grown around each other. Pull loose these tangled, skinny roots with your 
hands, and trim away the shaggy ends with hand shears. Also remove any brown or 
unhealthy roots. Next, find the taproot (the primary root), and cut it off. This is an important 
step to dwarf the plant. Finally, fan out and thin the roots at the base of the trunk using the 
rake. Always use a gentle touch with the roots. 

• Cover the bottom of the pot with soil. Add the tree with its roots fanned out wide. Cover the 
roots with soil, filling the pot evenly until the surface of the dirt is level. 

Step 5 — Complete the bonsai environment. 

• Now give the tree a generous drink, to "water it in." Finally, add any moss, rocks, or 
companion plants to flesh out your design. 

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Bonsai 101 

Step 6 — Tend the bonsai. 

• Place the tree in direct sunlight. If 
the light seems too intense for 
young or delicate trees, hang a 
shade cloth to filter the light. Water 
as needed. Do not put your tree on 
a strict schedule. Wait for it to 
become mostly dry before you 

• Maintain the health of the tree, and 
begin to shape it, with simple 
pruning and pinching. Prune any 
branches that are less than 
healthy, or that stand in the way of 
the shape you'd like to make 
(Figure I). Pinching back new 
growth at the ends of branches will 
encourage thickening. 

• Before you start shaping the tree, 
allow it to grow until it seems well 
established in its new environment. 
Depending on your patience, this 
might be a season, or a whole 
year, or only a few weeks. 

• Feed the bonsai throughout the 
year. During winter dormancy, feed 
it a fertilizer low in nitrogen. When 
spring arrives, increase the amount 
of nitrogen, and through the 
summer use a balanced food. 

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Bonsai 101 

Step 7 — Shape the bonsai. 

• When shaping trees, the objective is to manipulate the tree, without scarring the bark, to 
create the illusion of years of natural stress from the forces of nature. Start slow, with 
gentle tension. You can gradually increase the tension over time. 

• Here are 3 methods: 

• Wire. When wiring, use care not to damage the tree. Don't wrap the wire too tightly around 
the wood. Check the wiring often, removing and replacing it as the tree grows. Begin by 
coiling one end of the copper wire around the base of the tree, and wind it along the trunk 
or branch you wish to bend. Be certain to lay the wire evenly so as to properly distribute 
the pressure. When the tree has been wired, bend the branch or trunk carefully with both 
hands, gripping evenly to avoid snapping the tree. 

• Tie. Tie a piece of thin hemp rope or cotton twine around the pot. Now tie a piece of twine 
to the branch you wish to bend, and pull it down with the string until it curves as you like. 
To maintain the tension, tie the loose end to the string that's tied around the pot. 

• Weight. Choose a small stone, not heavy enough to break the tree, and hang it from the 
trunk or branch with a small length of wire or string. Don't hang the weight from the very 
tip, as you could break the tree. Instead, start 1/3 of the way from the tip, wrap the wire or 
string evenly around until you reach the end, and then let the stone dangle. 

• Depending on the thickness of the trunk, and the shape you intend to create, you might 
use these techniques over the course of a season, or even for a year or more. 

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Bonsai 101 

Step 8 — Display the bonsai. 

• Potting a perfect tree into a perfect 
pot is not the final step. This art 
must be displayed, and thus 
honored. Placing the tree on a 
small stand gives it a sense of 
importance, and elevates it above 
the common. Consider something 
simple, such as a piece of cork, a 
modest wooden plant stand with 
short legs that doesn't throw off the 
balance, a slab of raw slate, or a 
lacquered tray. 

This project first appeared in CRAFT Volume 08 pages 134-139. 

This document was last generated on 2012-11-14 09:40:01 AM. 

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